When I read the testimonies of those who have lost faith or had their faith severely shaken, I frequently notice these persons will mention the imperceptibility of grace as an issue. Usually commenting on the uncharity of other Catholics, they will say things like, “The operation of grace does not seem present in the Catholics I know; if we are the true Faith, shouldn’t it be more noticeable?” or, “I don’t see the effects of grace in their life.”Unam Sanctam Catholicam: Crises of Faith: The Operation of Grace
What this ultimately comes down to is people aren’t as good as we expect they should be. And it’s not an empty argument: The essential trait of a Christian is supposed to be that we are “Christ-like”, which supposes the sanctification of the person through the working of grace. And this is not an abstract principle; it is supposed to bear fruit in all manner of tangible signs: fruits of the spirit (Gal. 5:22-23), corporal works of mercy (Jas. 1:27), and the development of virtue. This is all made possible by grace. If grace is real, shouldn’t we clearly notice these manifestations of it?
Furthermore, when Christians fail to respond with grace in sensitive situations, it stings. Hard. Too often Christians, who should be the most reassuring, respond with coldness or astonishing hubris. I seldom speak of my own life on here, but I want to share some of my own experiences in this regard: I am a divorced Catholic and have been so for several years. When this happened, I received virtually no support from my Catholic friends whatsoever. I’m not talking about institutional support from the Church; I don’t care about that. I’m talking about Catholic friends reaching out and saying, “Hey, how are you doing?” Or saying, “Wanna go out and do something?” Nobody started a sign-up to bring me any dinners. Invitations to social events dropped off; I stopped getting invited to weddings. They quietly stopped interacting with me online. Even my kids stopped getting invited on play dates and stuff like that. People stopped chit-chatting with me after Mass or at Sunday coffee and donuts. It’s not that people were expressing outright judgment towards me; its just that they weren’t…anything. It was so disappointing. I ended up having to make a whole new set of Catholic friends (by and large people I met online).
But…guess who was right there for me? My secular or non-Catholic friends were right there. They wanted to take me out for drinks to soothe my wounds. They texted me “Hey how are you feeling?” They were right there to say, “Aw shit happens man, I’m sorry.” They did good to me without any expectation or sense of obligation. May God reward them.Feeling abandoned by my Catholic social circle was devastating. I’m still kind of angry about it. And I don’t understand it. Did they think that by simply being my friend through a hard time they were supporting divorce or something? If so, that’s ridiculous; that would be like saying I can’t visit someone in prison lest it be construed I support his crimes. I don’t know. But it was extremely hurtful to see that persons who I believed ought to have been the most charitable and grace-filled were being outpaced by non-believers. It was my most painful experience with Catholics I ever had, and it wasn’t with the clergy or institution, but with the rank and file schlubs in the pews who I thought were my friends.
Shouldn’t these people—who receive the Body of Christ weekly or even daily—have responded with more grace to my pain?
As I’ve reflected on this over the years, I’ve come to see it this way: people generally do the best that they can with the knowledge and gifts they have available to them. It is easy for me to say, “If you really had grace, you should have done X or Y in a given situation.” But I can’t evaluate a person’s objective state on the spectrum of grace. Perhaps someone’s behavior to me was a little off-putting; I don’t know how much worse it would have been without grace. Maybe someone is a braggart and has always been a braggart for the last ten years you’ve known them, and despite all their communions and prayers, they are the same bragging fool as they’ve always been. Well, thank God they are the same bragging fool and not a worse one! That, too, is grace. Perhaps so-and-so comes to Mass dutifully every week, says little, contributes little, understands little, and makes little progress. But how do you know that simply maintaining this station does not require everything he has? Is not the meaning of the widow’s mite parable that it’s hard to judge the true value of a person’s progress on mere externals?
Life is hard, and even with grace it is still a struggle. God knows I have let people down, too. I have had friends call me in need, and I blew them off because their need was inconvenient to me at the time. I’ve looked the other way. I’ve sinned by omission. I’ve been arrogant. But that doesn’t mean grace hasn’t been working in my life; when I look at where I’ve come from and where I am now, my entire life is a miracle of grace. I know I have a long way to go still, but that’s just because I am a work in progress, and “it hath not yet appeared what we shall be” (1 John 3:2). But this is ultimately a journey and we are all pilgrims. If I am walking from Detroit to Los Angeles, the fact that I have not arrived at Los Angeles is no argument that I never left Detroit. A traveler must not only consider where he needs to go but how far he has come. And thus it is with grace. So, I’ve come to the conclusion that it’s impossible for me to judge how and to what degree grace works in peoples’ lives. I simply don’t know where people are on their individual journeys. I rejoice when I see moments of grace, but I cannot use these moments to make any sort of judgment on a person’s overall state.
And of course, it’s rare for someone to become truly saintly. We know where we all want to be: fruits of the spirit, works of mercy, virtue, etc. But few people progress in the spiritual life to the point where these things become resplendent; few reach sanctity this side of heaven. Think about something like physical exercise. Of all the persons who say, “This year I’m going to get in shape this year!”, how many of them do you think actually persevere in that resolution? How many of them are actually in shape by next year? The minority. Most make nominal gains, then give up. Only a few make demonstrable progress that is noticeable by others. Given that the spiritual life is compared to athletic training, requiring similar endurance and discipline, should we be surprised that so few become exceptional?
Of course, there certainly are many circumstances when grace is discernible. I mean, starting with my own life, I can discern many places where grace has worked me over the years and brought about real, substantial change. Is this the sort of change that others can easily see from the outside? Not necessarily. Again, others don’t know what I struggle with, just like I don’t know what others struggle with. Sometimes we have victory in one area and continue to fight elsewhere. I am infinitely more patient and loving now than I was 15 years ago. That’s grace. But I also have failures, sins, and bad habits I continue to struggle with. I may be more patient now, but I am just as much of a blabbermouth as I was 15 years ago. It’s grace that I am not worse. Someone may easily discern I am an inveterate blabbermouth, but they may not discern that I am more patient or loving. Thus, anyone who would presume to judge the work of grace in my life based on the former without knowledge of the latter would be horridly mistaken in their judgment.
Similarly, when I spend the time to really talk to my Catholic friends, all of them have stories of grace to tell. And in many cases it is discernible in their life, but only after you have really gotten to know them, entered into their world, and understood where they are coming from. Grace, after all, works like a “still, small voice”; it is engendered by the Spirit, which “blows where it wills, and you hear the sound of it, but you do not know whence it comes or whither it goes” (1 Kings 19:12; John 3:8). It is always working. And when we complain that we don’t see it, we are merely complaining that it does not work the way we think it should work, bearing the fruit we think it should bear, visible in a way we think we should see it, in the times we believe it should be seen.
Instead of looking about at the Church and saying, “Grace doesn’t seem to be working in these peoples’ lives”, actually sit down with these people and say, “Brother, tell me a story of how grace has been working in your life”, and you’ll hear an astonishing tale almost every single time. It will be more interesting and edifying than whatever you assumed grace ought to be doing. After His resurrection, the disciples asked Christ, “Lord, will you at this time restore the kingdom to Israel?” (Acts 1:6). Imagine the disappointment of those who could not let go of their own conception of what Christ’s work ought to be! But for those who let go of their own expectations of what should be and instead received what Christ actually wanted to give, how rich their joy must have been!
Ultimately, we must avoid trying to judge where and how grace is working in the lives of others, and especially avoid sitting in judgment over how we think it should be working. That is a recipe for frustration and impatience with others—loss of charity, loss of hope, and ultimately loss of faith. Christ’s teachings “Judge not lest ye be judged” and “Remove the plank from your own eye before removing the speck from your brother’s eye” are not just platitudes to help us be nice; they are life-giving principles that keep us humble, grounded, and seeing the way God sees. And once we see with His wisdom, the works of grace become manifest.